New UJS President: 'I’m not going to take my kippah off for anything'

Joel Rosen talks Jeremy Corbyn, fighting antisemitism, Jewish student life, and his goals for the year ahead


The new president of the Union of Jewish Students did not set out to become a Jewish student leader, but as he put his talents to work getting the IHRA definition adopted by his student union, fighting antisemitism in the Labour Party, and holding Jeremy Corbyn to account, he found actually, leadership might just be for him.

Joel Rosen, who took up his post leading the UJS in July, has vowed to ensure university Jewish societies expand their reach and attract Jewish students of all traditions, restore and expand the wealth of activities and opportunities offered by UJS before the pandemic, and support students fighting antisemitism on campuses across the UK.

Speaking to the JC over lunch in one of his favourite kosher restaurants in Golders Green, Rosen says: “I want to fight and work to enable people to be Jewish in whatever way is meaningful to them.”

Rosen is the first openly LGBT president of the UJS. “I’m sure in our 100 years, there have been LGBT presidents, and there are also people who have come out since being UJS president,” he said.

“I am the first to run in a UJS campaign and win it, and then serve as an LGBT UJS president. I feel it’s a sign of where the community has come, but a sign we still have further to go. We can also make our communal discourse more inclusive.”

Explaining why he decided to run for the UJS presidency, Rosen says: “I felt like I had gained a huge amount from Jewish student life on my campus, and I wanted to contribute something back because the community had afforded me great opportunities.

“I’m a big believer in the thriving Jewish student community that we have, and I wanted to contribute to that.”

There is no shortage of challenges facing Jewish students this year that Rosen is tasked with addressing: “There’s a problem with antisemitism on campus. I think that there was a particular strain of thought, that some students sadly fall victim to, that doesn’t see antisemitism as a real issue. There’s a culture of denial in some quarters.

“I also think there’s perhaps a slight leadership deficit in JSocs because people, through no fault of their own, weren’t filling committee roles in a standard way, so we’re very keen that we equip and enable JSocs as fast as possible.”

The cost-of-living crisis is also a key issue facing Jewish students: “I think that it is an area of immense concern, particularly when you consider things like the cost of kosher food for Jewish students - that's a huge issue.” He said the UJS will be saying more on that in the coming months.

Despite well-known instances of antisemitism on university campuses, Rosen very much rejects the characterisation espoused by some that they are dangerous places for Jews: “We should be clear, as the CST’s last campus report indicated; the vast majority of Jewish students have strongly positive experiences on campus. It’s important that we speak about the good as well as the bad.”

However, in his first week in the job, Rosen had the task of helping compile the UJS submission to the inquiry investigating allegations of antisemitism against NUS president Shaima Dallali, as well as the wider historic culture of the institution, and he will lead the UJS response when that concludes by the end of October.

“It’s clear that successive generations of Jewish students have been failed by NUS,” Rosen says.

“It is completely clear to me that Shaima Dallali has made numerous utterances that have offended not only Jewish students, but LGBT students as well, and it’s very clear that the onus is on NUS and its elected officials to get its own house in order.”

He has high expectations of what he wants to have achieved by the end of his tenure in charge of Jewish student life: “I would want the inquiry into antisemitism in the NUS to have captured the lived experiences of Jewish students in that organisation over successive generations. I would want UJS to have supported, equipped and enabled JSocs to fight antisemitism.

“I would want us to have showcased the vibrancy of Jewish life on campus in terms of events that bring different Jews together. I would want us to have reached out to people who aren’t particularly engaged with their JSocs with an exciting offering, and I would want Jewish students, to borrow a phrase, to see more Jewish students doing more Jewish things, and that’s core to what UJS is.”

Rosen, 22, was born and raised in north London, attending Menorah Primary School and Hasmonean High School before completing his A Levels at the City of London School.

After a gap year volunteering on the Magen David Adom ambulances in Israel, he started at Cambridge University in 2019: “I really enjoyed Cambridge JSoc. It was a place that brought people from different political and religious traditions together.

“Some of my best experiences were either late at night on a Friday night after dinner, or events on a Shabbat afternoon, and I spent many happy days there, chatting with people.”

He adds: “It’s a very student-led JSoc. Some of the best things that come out of UJS is another of our core values – leadership. And that was embodied at Cambridge.”

Rosen never ran for president of the JSoc, instead taking on the roles of LGBT officer and External officer, and one of his first campaigns was to get Cambridge Student Union to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, in which he succeeded.

He only decided to run for the UJS presidency after some encouragement from “some very nice people”, and despite his left-leaning political loyalties, he ran a non-partisan campaign, with a Conservative supporter as campaign manager.

“I was very keen to ensure that I built a campaign made up of people from different political backgrounds. I've done the same with the sabbatical team this year. We are trying to engage with Jewish students from across the political spectrum.”

He travelled to JSocs across the UK to make his pitch, and he was elected in a landslide in December 2021.

Rosen has been active in politics from his school days when a teacher recommended reading Alastair Campbell’s book, and after much more reading and learning, he joined the Labour Party at the age of 16.

But by then, Jeremy Corbyn had taken over the leadership of the party, and it became a very unpleasant place for young Jews. Rosen encountered members who denied the existence of antisemitism within the party: “We were too young to be fighting that fight. I don’t think we realise it now, but no one should have to fight that fight.”

“It was a fight none of chose, none of us wanted, but it was a fight we had to fight, and I’m very proud of the people I know who worked far harder than I did in that.”

Rosen attended local party meetings, worked for a Jewish MP, and endured some awful abuse from fellow members, along with other Jewish people who spoke out: “I never took off my kippah in a single Labour Party meeting. I never wanted them to change who I was and how or how I expressed myself. So, very early on I made a conscious decision that I wouldn’t in any way alter or diminish my Jewishness to suit people's politics.”

Rosen worked to ensure that Corbyn did not become prime minister, but after having been without a voice in the party for so long, he sought an opportunity to hold Corbyn accountable, which came in June 2021.

On the dais at the Cambridge Union, Rosen asked Corbyn directly about the antisemitism in the Labour Party under his leadership, drawing widespread praise for his confidence and directness, but also attracting horrendous abuse as a result.

He says that he felt very nervous before the event, but he knew he needed to speak out: “Having felt voiceless for so long, I really had the opportunity to tell the human story of what we’d faced over those years.”

“I did it on behalf of the people my age, who I'd seen going through that. The people who really suffered, who had panic attacks after being shouted down at meetings, the people who were sent incredible amounts of abuse on Twitter, and the Jewish women who received antisemitic misogynistic threats and abuse.

“I'd seen all of that and I really felt an incredible sense of injustice at the fact that this was a person who was almost doing a victory lap, doing the post-leadership speaking circuit, and I just thought it was important, very respectfully, very politely, to put an honest human account of what had happened in the past few years.”

Asked what he thought of Corbyn’s responses at the time, he says: “I think they’re the responses of a man in denial, someone who sees himself as the victim in all of this. He sees himself as the victim of an antisemitic culture that thrived under his watch. It’s breathtaking.

“After the interview, we stood in the car park for a good 10 minutes continuing the back and forth. He seemed particularly aggrieved that I quoted his former Special Advisor Andrew Murray who was someone who was in the Communist Party for decades – very much not one of his Blairite critics – who spoke about that blind spot whereby people around Corbyn and him personally just didn’t understand antisemitism.

“They would understand historically when Jews were disadvantaged and when they were immigrants who looked different and sounded different. And the fascinating thing about Corbyn’s answer to my question was he immediately started talking about Charedi Jews. It was almost proving the point. He’s got such a limited construction of what a minority is.

“He seemed to want me to say to accept that he wasn’t antisemitic, which is a fascinating insight after everything I’d said. ‘As long as you can accept that I’m not an antisemite’ were his words.

“As if the litmus test of an antisemite is whether they can convince a Jew, one Jew, one kid in a kippah, that he’s not an antisemite.”

Rosen confronted the man who had made so many from the Jewish community feel unsafe in their own political homes, and he did it with his characteristic conviction, directness, and politeness.

“I’m not going to take my kippah off for anything,” Rosen declares. “Least of all Jeremy Corbyn.”

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